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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 1999
How Can It Be Learned?

Robert Eisenberger, University of Delaware

The Romantic tradition in Western civilization, as reflected in the writings of humanistic psychologists, values the gentle nurture of unique talent as a means to individual success. This romantic view gives insufficient recognition to the difficult work needed to become proficient in a field of endeavor (Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996). Biographical studies of the lives of such remarkable scientists and mathematicians as Einstein, Feynman, von Neumann, and Ramanujan reveal the remarkable persistence required for creative achievement (Clark, 1972; Gleick, 1992; Kanigel, 1991; Lanouette, 1992; Macrae, 1992).

Some individuals work harder than others who have equivalent ability and motivation. One student consistently studies more for various courses than another student with similar life goals. A teacher carefully prepares lessons whereas a colleague relies on old, incomplete notes. A factory employee completes tasks rapidly and efficiently whereas another dawdles. Learning may contribute importantly to such individual differences in industriousness.

Almost seven decades ago, J. B. Watson (1930/1970) argued that "the formation of early work habits in youth, of working longer hours than others, of practicing more intensively than others, is probably the most reasonable explanation we have today not only for success in any line, but even for genius" (p. 212). If Watson exaggerated for emphasis, individual differences of industriousness do have an important influence on achievement. Recent research has shed light on mechanisms that contribute to the learning of industriousness.

Learned Industriousness Theory
Learned industriousness theory (Eisenberger, 1992) asserts that rewarding a difficult task produces classical conditioning involving the pairing of effort (the conditioned stimulus) with a positive unconditioned stimulus (the reward), thereby reducing effort's aversiveness. When a difficult task is followed by reward, the effort would become less aversive, increasing the amount of effort the individual subsequently chooses to spend performing this and other difficult tasks.

Physical effort involves "the subjective experience that accompanies bodily movement when it meets resistance or when muscles are fatigued" (English & English, 1968, p. 171). Cognitive effort refers to the sensation experienced when mental activity encounters impediments such as mental fatigue or complex reading material. The aversiveness of effort has an evolutionary benefit: a species that continually chose the most difficult way to obtain food or drink would be at a competitive disadvantage. So all higher species seem to follow the law of least effort, according to which laborsaving changes in behavior for rewards are favored (Hull, 1943; Solomon, 1948). Although organisms prefer to achieve their goals with least effort, high effort is required for achieving long-term goals.

Learned industriousness theory assumes that different kinds of physical and cognitive tasks produce similar aversive subjective experience. For example, the experience of cognitive effort the reader expends on this article is similar, in the present view, to that involved in writing a term paper or figuring out what courses to take. If the experience of effort is similar across different tasks, then learning to tolerate high effort in one task may increase toleration of high effort in subsequent tasks.

Basic Research Findings
Extensive research with animals and humans shows that, consistent with learned industriousness theory, reward for high effort contributes to durable individual differences in effort expenditure (Eisenberger, 1992). Rats required to press a lever with high force for food later made more trips in a runway for food than rats receiving food for pressing a lever requiring low force. Rats required to make five trips in a runway for food, as opposed to one trip, subsequently showed a greater preference for pressing a heavy lever for a large food reward versus a light lever for a small food reward. Depressed mental patients asked to carry out several custodial tasks by a ward attendant were later more persistent in a clerical task administered by another invvidual than were comparable patients who had received verbal approval for each custodial task. College students rewarded for solving difficult cognitive problems subsequently wrote better essays than did students who had been rewarded for solving easy cognitive problems. The effects of rewarded high effort also extends to socially important behaviors, such as honesty and creativity.

Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, John von Neumann, and Srinivasa Ramanujan--four superlatively industrious figures of the 20th century. Careful examination of the lives of outstanding scientists and mathematicians reveals the value of periodic salient reward to sustain creative effort when success comes slowly and with great difficulty.


Reward of high effort could help sustain a person's subsequent performance in difficult tasks when the opportunity arises to achieve the desired result by dishonest behavior. By concentrating on working for a desired goal, rather than dwelling on the goal itself, a person would be less inclined to resort to dishonest shortcuts. An experiment with college students tested whether rewarded high performance would increase the subsequent resistance to cheating on a different task (Eisenberger & Masterson, 1983). One group of students was required to solve difficult mathematics problems and perceptual identifications. A second group received easier versions of these problems, and a third group was given no training at all. Next, the students were asked to work on a series of anagrams that were almost impossible to solve in the short time allotted for each word. The students were told that speaking aloud interfered with the anagram task and that they should try to solve the anagrams without speaking. When the time was up for figuring out an anagram, they would be shown the correct answer. They were simply to place a plus on the answer sheet if they had figured out the answer they were shown, and to put a zero if they had not achieved the solution. Cheating seemed simple to the students because they never had to supply an answer, simply to claim the solution after it was shown to them.

Most of the students did cheat. However, the students who had previously been required to solve difficult anagrams cheated less than the others. Rewarded high performance on preliminary tasks reduced the number of anagrams that students falsely claimed to solve. These results suggest that an individual's honesty is influenced by the generalized effects of rewarded high effort.

An additional assumption of learned industriousness theory is that people learn the dimensions of performance (e.g., speed, accuracy, or novelty) required for reward and generalize such learning to new tasks. For instance, preadolescent students who were rewarded for reading with high accuracy subsequently produced more accurate drawings and stories than did those who had been rewarded for reading with high speed or for the mere completion of the reading task. In comparison, students who were rewarded for high reading speed subsequently constructed stories more quickly than did students who were rewarded for high reading accuracy or the mere completion of the reading task (Eisenberger, Mitchell, McDermitt, & Masterson, 1984).

Creativity involves the generation of novel behavior that meets a standard of quality or utility. Because daily experience rewards various types of conventional performance more frequently than novel responding, people promised reward for carrying out tasks, without a clear indication that creativity is required, may respond conventifinally rather than creatively. Eisenberger, Armeli, and Pretz (1998) found that the promise of pay for unspecified drawing performance increased the creativity of the children's drawings if the children had previously received pay for generating novel uses for common objects. Preliminary reward for creativity caused the children to interpret the subsequent promise of reward for unspecified performance as an indication that novelty was needed to obtain the reward, causing the children to increase their creativity. These results suggest that reward for creative performance produces a generalized increase in creativity.

The individual's decision concerning how much effort to exert in goal-directed behavior is influenced by the generalized efforts of prior reward for low or high effort. The occurrence of learned individual differences in industriousness is shown by a variety of studies both with lower animals and humans. Generalized effects of rewarded high effort influence socially important activities ranging from cheating to creativity. Learned industriousness theory helps explain why some people work harder than others of equivalent ability and motivation.

Clark, R. W. (1972). Einstein: The life and times. New York: Avon Books.

Eisenberger, R. (1992). Learned industriousness. Psychological Review, 99, 248-267.

Eisenberger, R., Armeli, S., & Pretz, J. (1998). Can the promise of reward increase creativity? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 704-714.

Eisenberger, R. & Cameron, J. (1996). Detrimental effects of reward: Reality or myth? American Psychologist, 51, 1153-1166.

Eisenberger, R. & Masterson, F. A. (1983). Required high effort increases subsequent persistence and reduces cheating. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 593-599.

Eisenberger, R. Mitchell, M., McDermitt, M., & Masterson, F. A. (1984). Accuracy versus speed in the generalized effort of learning-disabled children. Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 42, 19-36.

English, H. B., & English, A. C. (1968). A comprehensive dictionary of psychological and psychoanalytical terms. New York: David McKay.

Gleick, J. (1992). Genius: The life and science of Richard Feynman. New York: Pantheon.

Hull, C. L. (1943). Principles of behavior. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts.

Kanigel, R. (1991). The man who knew infinity: A life of the genius Ramanujan. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Lanouette, W. (1992). Genius in the shadows: A biography of Leo Szilard. New York: Macmillan.

Macrae, N. (1992). John von Neumann. New York: Pantheon.

Solomon, R. I. (1948). The influence of work on behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 45, 1-40.

Watson, J. B. (1970). Behaviorism. New York: Norton. (Original work published 1930).

[This article was originally presented as a Psi Chi Distinguished Lecture at the combined meeting of the Rocky Mountain and Western Psychological Associations in Albuquerque, NM, April 18, 1998.]

Robert Eisenberger (born February 11, 1943, in New York City) received his BA (1964) from the University of California, Los Angeles and his PhD (1972) from the University of California, Riverside and is a fellow of the American Psychological Association. He taught at State University of New York at Albany followed by the University of Delaware where he is a professor of psychology. He served as director of the social psychology graduate program from 1987 to 1989 and from 1995 to 1996.

Professor Eisenberger's research centers on human motivation. One of his major interests (discussed in the accompanying article) involves the study of why some individuals generally work harder than others. A related research area concerns the study of enjoyment of activities for their own sake (intrinsic motivation). His recent findings suggest that (a) reward can be used effectively with children and employees to increase perceived control over whether and how tasks are carried out, perceived competence, task enjoyment, and creativity, and (b) expectancies of reward are positively related to employees' expression of interest in daily job activities, this relationship being stronger among persons with a high desire for control.

Professor Eisenberger also studies employee motivation. His research in a variety of work organizations indicates that (a) employees form general beliefs concerning how much the organization values their contributions and cares about their well-being (perceived organizational support), and (b) based on the norm of reciprocity, employees reciprocate such support with increased emotional commitment to the organization, work effort in standard job activities, and innovative problem solving.

Copyright 1999 (Volume 3, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



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